‘Wolf Hall’: The Real Life ‘Game of Thrones’

wolf hall, mark rylance, Henry VIII
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell. Oh, yes, he’d be running Westeros in six months. image via BBC Two.

For the previous six weeks, viewers could switch from an episode of Game of Thrones on HBO to the Masterpiece Theatre showing of Wolf Hall on their local PBS station.

For those six weeks, I jumped from a fictional world where players tried to stay alive while jockeying for power around a capricious king to a real-life story of those jockeying for power around a capricious king.

Unlike Game of Thrones, Wolf Hall, the story of Thomas Cromwell’s rise as Henry VIII’s most trusted advisor, has few scenes of violence, no dragons, no white walkers, and no pitched battles.

Yet I found Wolf Hall, based on two novels by Hilary Mantel, more compelling.

Part of that is Wolf Hall is more focused on a single person. Cromwell, magnificently underplayed by Mark Rylance, is in nearly every scene. He talks softly, choosing words carefully, and forces the viewer to pay close attention.

Oh, but when he talks, he talks truth, and invariably hits the mark.

Cromwell is the smartest guy in the room, by far, and it’s a joy to see him outwit everyone. His fictional counterpart would likely be Petyr Baelish on Game of Thrones, but Cromwell is given a richer inner emotional life. He’s kind when he’s allowed to be, and he even tries to find some way to spare his rival, Sir Thomas More, from execution.

At one point, after the King is feared dead, and everyone began to move for their own interest, Cromwell reflects to a friend, “How many men can say that the King of England is their only friend?” It’s a wry observation that people only value him because he has Henry’s ear, but it’s also Cromwell worried that without the king’s favor, he’s in deep trouble.

And when he needs fall guys to help move Anne Boleyn from power, Cromwell says, “So I have found guilty men, though not necessarily guilty of what they’re accused of.”

I have no idea how Game of Thrones will eventually end, which is part of the show’s appeal.

History gives us the fates of Anne Boleyn, More, Henry VIII, and Thomas Cromwell, so wondering what will happen next isn’t the appeal of Wolf Hall. It’s the journey that matters. I’ve found that watching the wheels turn in Cromwell’s head is as intense a viewing experience as any sword fight or battle.

Wolf Hall has finished its short six-episode run on PBS, ending with, appropriately, the final fate of Anne Boleyn. It’s already available on DVD and on Amazon Prime.

There’s no word on a television adaptation of Mantel’s third book, The Mirror and the Light. I’m hopeful, but, for now, I’ll have to read Mantel’s trilogy and content myself with that.

Writer, Mom, Geek and Superhero. though usually not all four on the same day. Author of the award-winning Phoenix Institute Superhero series and the steampunk novel, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract.